VHessays: Space Camp

VHessays aren't about the greatest movies of our generation. They're about hidden gems and guilty pleasures. We write them to bring back memories of a different era of filmmaking and hopefully send you searching through an old closet to find your VHS tapes.

Ohhh, Max and Jinx...

In the 80s, space was still a place to dream about. Astronauts were still top-five on the "what I want to be when I grow up" list. The Apollo missions and moon landings of the 60s had given way to Space Shuttle missions. We may not have always known what the point of those enormously expensive missions were, but we were excited either way because the Shuttle was cool. The Shuttle looked like an honest-to-goodness space ship. Oh how we envied the kids that got to go to the real Space Camp (I'm looking at you, John Ashley Ponsoll) and marveled at their shiny packages of freeze-dried, astronaut ice-cream. 

Challenger - 1986

Every Shuttle launch leading up to '86 was a big deal. They were an event. And the popularity culminated with an estimated 48% of all American children, ages 9-13 (and I was one of them), gathered in school rooms to see Christa McAuliffe become the first school teacher in space on January 28th.  There we sat in excitement, gathered around televisions like generations before us, but rather than seeing a man walk on the moon, we saw the Challenger explode and disintegrate right in front of our eyes.

It was the first where-were-you-when moment since JFK's assassination and, after that, nothing was quite the same for kids' perception of NASA and the space program. At that moment Space Camp officially became an unprecedented marketing nightmare as it was released less than five months later.  Roger Ebert gave it one and a half stars, saying our thoughts about the Shuttle could never be the same, the memories were too painful and the movie was "doomed before it begins."

With all that said, I want to put those events out of our minds for the purpose of this essay / analysis. By the time the film hit rental shelves, a year had passed since the incident. It may have still been fresh in the minds of adults but, as a nine year-old, I sat down ready to enjoy the movie without any previous emotional equity.  .......I was nine and it was a movie about space! Do you know how much a nine-year-old can put behind them in a year?

When cut free of that framing, Space Camp is a fun look at the space program before it all changed. A classic tale about dreaming big. It's unashamedly hokey and cliché and those are all the things I love about it today. I was able to watch the movie without the burden of the tragedy on my mind. I enjoyed it on its own merits and that is exactly how we're going to look at it now.

Who's Who

Space Camp has quite the who's-who 80s lineup. None other than the Viper himself, Tom Skerritt (Top Gun was in theaters at exactly the same time). Kate Capshaw hot off of Temple of Doom, the future Mrs. John Travolta, Lamar from Revenge of the Nerds, Leaf? (Joaquin) Phoenix, Lea Thompson and Tate Donovan...  Is it possible that any red-blooded American male wasn't crushing hard on Lea Thompson in 1986?

Make no mistake, the movie is not great. Every character is two-dimensional at best and obviously manages to conquer their single flaw by the end of the movie. It's as sappy as it can possibly be, full of cliches and bad dialogue, but it was right in my wheelhouse at the time. I loved it. I thought Kevin was cool. I identified with Max. I was in love with Kathryn... The whole nine yards. And that's why it has a permanent spot on my mental movie shelf.

The Plot

At the beginning of Space Camp we find a young Andie Bergstrom, staring at the night sky, spotting an Apollo orbiter, and dreaming of "going up." When we flash forward, she's the first female Shuttle pilot and getting ready to spend the summer helping her husband, Zach (Skerritt!) who is the camp director and a former Apollo astronaut.

Andie is tasked with teaching five kids from different backgrounds the true value of teamwork and leadership. Those happen to be the two main themes for kids attending the actual Space Camp (which you can apparently still attend to this day.) (Even you adults who are looking for a special weekend. Ohhhh yes. Let the romance begin.) Kevin, Kathryn, Rudy, Tish, and Max are a rag-tag group who can't quite make it work as a cohesive team due to their individual flaws. However, they're forced to come together when Max's robot friend Jinx, who is sentient for some reason, decides to hack into NASA's talking computer system and actually launch Max into space during an engine test because they are friends "for-eeeeeev-ver."

I will admit, believing there was a small possibility of accidentally being shot into space made me slightly less eager to attend Space Camp myself, at the time. Now, about this especially annoying robot... Didn't I tell you in the Rocky IV VHessay that filmmakers in the 80s had a robot obsession? Jinx certainly won't be the last one we see in these essays. Not by a long shot.

Okay, so the shuttle wasn't prepared for an actual launch, which means they are low on oxygen and have no long-range radio to communicate with mission control. (Do they remove the radio after every mission?) Andie takes them to an under-construction space station, Daedalus, which I just assumed actually existed but apparently never did. Daedalus has oxygen cannisters on it, but Andie is too big to reach them in her space suit. I'm not sure why you'd make them inaccessible when you installed them, but regardless...  They tie little Max into a space suit using Tish's belt. The belt looks normal enough when she hands it to them, but apparently it's actually 50 feet long because it can wrap completely around the suit several times over. They do this under the notion that Max will be able to fit through the station rigging and reach the oxygen... in the exact same suit that Andie is wearing. I don't know, but somehow it works. Yadda yadda Max almost floats out into space. Andie gets knocked out. Kathryn nearly decides to reenter the atmosphere with Andie hanging outside the shuttle. Kevin chooses to bring her in. They all have to conquer their flaws and work together as a team to get home. They land the shuttle. End Credits.

No, seriously, Atlantis touches down (via stock footage no less) and the credits roll. I'm not sure what that's about. No relieved parents. No reuniting of Zach and Andie. No resolution with Max and Jinx. No hint of continued romance between Kevin and Kathryn. Nope. That's it. Get out. Granted, it's easy enough to finish this one off in your head, but still. It seems a bit abrupt.

Kevin as 80s America - A Cautionary Tale

Apart from the value of teamwork, the writer sneaks in a good old soapbox theme about where America and the world were headed. Its an absolutely classic 80s worldview and he lays it on thick. In a conversation on the beach, Kathryn plays the voice of reason to Kevin, who I believe is meant to represent the typical, disillusioned American mindset. The writer/Kathryn points out the untouched beauty of space. Kevin wants to know what the big deal is. Well, Kevin, "In space anything is possible." Kathryn surmises that maybe we can do things right up there... instead of screwing them up like we have down here. True to jaded form, Kevin responds, "What's the point? I mean, we're all just going to get nuked anyway." (YEAH! Try to find a line that's more 80s than that.) Kathryn says that's just an excuse for people who are afraid to try. Kevin says he isn't afraid, but he just doesn't care. And BANG, there it is. Lazy Americans had lost their way and decided not to care because it's easier than trying to change things. I mean you couldn't possibly be more preachy in four minutes if you tried. And yet, at least it's a hopeful message for change and I can get behind that. Kathryn believes Kevin does care and is simply afraid to try and fail.

VHessays: Cloak & Dagger

If you didn't know, Jack Flack was a boss. My adolescent obsession with wanting to wear a beret was born the moment I saw him. I need to know if his gray, leather jacket, with nearly as many zippers as Michael Jackson's red counterpart, still exists and is hanging up in a forgotten closet somewhere or is a prize piece in some low-rent movie memorabilia collection. I still want it. I would rock that thing with driving gloves, I swear it.

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VHessays: Ghostbusters

The 80's were the glory days of action/sci-fi comedies

and Ghostbusters is somewhere at the top of that list.  Ghostbusters is a case of everything coming together at the right moment.  The movie was released in June, 1984.  Ramis, Murray, and Ivan Reitman had just finely tuned their comedic engine with Stripes three years earlier.

This is Bill Murray at the height of his powers.

The role and actor come together in such a perfect pairing, Peter Venkman is how we identify Murray's comic persona.  This is largely due to the fact that, like Stripes, the part simply gave Murray room.  I wouldn’t call it wiggle room; more like gaping expanses to fill with his brand of pseudo-improv.  When we think of how funny Murray can be, or even Bill Murray the man, I would contend we're largely thinking of Venkman; the character in which all Murray's talents and tricks were brought to bear.

The rest of the casting seems to fit like a glove as well.  Aykroyd’s genuine fascination with the supernatural inspired the script and filled Ray with a loveable, boy-like exuberance and sincerity.  Christopher Walken, Christopher Lloyd, Michael Keaton, Chevy, and Jeff Goldblum were all considered for Egon, but I can’t imagine anyone other than Harold Ramis filling the role.  His stoic impression of the character, round glasses, and Kramer hair (before there was a Kramer) are iconic in their own right.  Annie Potts and Rick Moranis nail their small parts, pumping every second of their screen time full of character and laughs.  Winston (Ernie Hudson) doesn’t have a lot to do in the first film but does bring an important and likeable dynamic to the group with the perspective of an outsider looking in.

One fascinating item to ponder is just how different Ghostsmashers, er, Ghostbusters would have been if the finished product were closer to Dan Aykroyd's original concept.  The Ghostsmashers were supposed to spend the movie traveling through time, space, and other dimensions fighting huge ghosts like Stay Puft with wands instead of proton packs.  Roles were intended for John Belushi, John Candy, and Eddie Murphy.  After Reitman pointed out the budgetary impossibilities of the original concept and John Belushi died, Aykroyd and Ramis completely reworked the concept and wrote a script in three weeks that was more grounded.

Ghostbusters has moments in it that are just magic.  Perfect little snippets that make you grin like an idiot every time you think about them and couldn’t possibly have been executed any better.  Moments like the first time they power-up Ray’s proton pack in the Sedgwick Hotel elevator and Peter and Egon slowly back away.  And the scene that encapsulates everything Ghostbusters is: when Peter shows up at Dana Barrett’s apartment for their date and she’s been possessed by Zuul.  The way Murray deadpans his way through this scenario, reacts to Sigourney Weaver who is totally committed, and drops perfectly scripted lines like bombs…it is perfection.

The film has a certain anti-establishment slant.  Take a look at any character who represents authority or the uppercrust and notice that they are all extremely stuffy jerkholes: Dean Yeager, Dana’s Violinist friend, and Walter Peck, one of the biggest dillweeds in the history of movies.  Was there any character in the 80's who was less likeable than this guy?  I'd rather hang out with Ferris Bueller's principal.

Ghostbusters is also an undeniable love letter to New York City; certainly not the first or last but, I believe, one of the best.  When the ghostbusting business takes off and we get the montage of the Ghostbusters running throught the streets and down the sidewalks of New York carrying smoking ghost traps, again I can’t stop smiling.  These shots are filmed at distance with extremely long lenses to truly make the team a part of the city.  It is genius and it is fun and it ranks with the top montages of the 80’s.  (It also contains the extremely bizarre dream segment with Ray and an erotic ghost.  How did that not get cut at some point?)  Despite the scene of ghost-love, this montage firmly rooted the movie in our reality.

Three more words:  Ray Parker Junior.

VHessays: Rocky IV

Rocky IV is a film that renders its time period in red, white, and blue magic markers.  Good and evil, right and wrong.  The movie is brazenly simple, unfailingly sincere and if you don't shed a tear for Apollo, you might be a Commie.

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